Trust Hockey India (HI) to spring a surprise. The portents of unusual developments were in the air when HI president Narinder Batra told journalists that they were in for some “entertainment” as a gaudily-dressed dance troupe grooved to loud Punjabi pop, eliciting guffaws in the packed room.
Within half an hour of the performance, came the real bit. Sardar Singh’s eight-year reign at the helm of the men’s team ended, and the baton was passed to his long-time deputy PR Sreejesh, who led India to the historic Champions Trophy silver last month.
Sardar had recently led India to a fifth-place finish in the Six Nations Invitational Tournament in Valencia, Spain, before masterminding a second-place finish at the Sultan Azlan Shah Cup in Malaysia in April. Forward SV Sunil was named vice-captain.
Defender and drag-flick specialist Harmanpreet Singh, who was named the most promising young player at the Champions Trophy, also made the cut. His junior team colleagues Harjeet Singh and Surender Kumar were also included in the 16-member Rio-bound squad.
Defender Pradeep Mor and goalkeeper Vikas Dahiya were named standbys. The team wears a settled look, with high performance director Roelant Oltmans retaining the core of the side that has played together for two years. Twelve of the sixteen members of the squad were part of the team that sealed the Olympic berth at the Asian Games in Incheon two years back and won silver at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow.
The women’s team, which has qualified for the quadrennial spectacle for the first time in 36 years, will be led by 24-year-old Sushila Chanu. The Manipur defender replaces Ritu Rani who has been dropped from the side allegedly due to form and attitude problems. Deepika, the senior-most member of the team with 172 matches under her belt, will be her deputy.
Coached by Aussie Neil Hawgood, the team is going through a rough patch. The 13th-ranked team finished sixth at the eight-nation Hawke’s Bay Cup in New Zealand (April 2-10) and fourth at the invitational Four Nations Tournament in Darwin, Australia (May 25-June 5) under the stewardship of Chanu.
In between, Rani led India to a disastrous tour to England, where the girls lost all five matches. They have won just one game over the past three months, against Canada, ranked five places below them.
Oltmans said the move to relieve Sardar of captaincy is aimed at ensuring the seasoned midfielder is freed of excess responsibilities.
“We felt people need to take more responsibilities on the pitch and off it. Sardar had way too many to tackle because of which he was not performing at the level that is expected of him,” he said.
“Sardar took the decision (of him being removed from captaincy) sportingly. He understands what’s required from him.”
Asked if Sardar’s off-field controversy bogged him down, the Dutchman replied in the affirmative.
“Of course those things did affect him,” he said, pertaining to the legal tangle that the former skipper finds himself in following a rape allegation.
“For me, it is important that we perform as a team. We tried this combination of players in the Champions Trophy and it worked for us. This is the time to fine-tune our processes and I have complete faith in our processes. I believe in this group of players,” said Oltmans.
Newly-appointed skipper Sreejesh believes restoring faith in the players is vital. “It doesn’t matter who is named skipper, what’s important each and every member of the team should have faith in himself. It would help us function as a unit and win matches,” he said.
Women: Navjot Kaur, Deep Grace Ekka, Monika, Nikki Pradhan, Anuradha Devi Thokchom, Savita, Poonam Rani, Vandana Katarya, Deepika (vice capt), Namita Toppo, Renuka Yadav, Sunita Lakra, Sushila Chanu (capt), Rani Rampal, Preeti Dubey, Llima Minz.
Standbys: Hinalum Lal Ruat Feli, Rajani Etmarpu
Men: Harmanpreet Singh, Rupinderpal Singh, Kothajit Singh, Surender Kumar, Manpreet Singh, Sardar Singh, VR Raghunath, SK Uthappa, PR Sreejesh (capt), Danish Mujtaba, Devinder Walmiki, SV Sunil (vice capt), Akashdeep Singh, Chinglensana Singh, Ramandeep Singh,Nikkin Thimmaiah.
Standbys: Pradeep Mor, Vikas Dahiya